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Updated on: Sunday, November 07, 2021, 12:11 AM IST

Decoding the intolerance that sank fashion designer Sabyasachi's mangalsutra ad campaign

The criticism of Sabyasachi for his ad campaign is only the latest incident of stifling ideas that some brands of politics find unpalatable
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In the first week of November, fashion designer and celebrity Sabyasachi launched an ad campaign for a new line of mangalsutras, and had to take it down a few hours after its launch. In that short time, Sabyasachi got bitterly trolled for ‘being offensive to religious sentiments’. We could say, unkindly, that Sabyasachi folded without a semblance of a stance against majority pressure, but the online trolling was followed by an ultimatum to him by Madhya Pradesh home minister Narottam Mishra. It all became a pressure cooker for the designer, perhaps, which also contained vitriol spewed by netizens. Social media trolling has made others, too, withdraw their campaigns. These are Fabindia, Tanishq, Kent RO, Zomato, Ola, and Jawed Habib.

A progressive act 

Sabyasachi’s campaign included an image of a skimpily clad, dusky, buxom girl with a signature tiger-emblazoned mangalsutra snaking down her ample cleavage. The choice of model and theme was progressive. It asked, why high fashion should be deemed apt only for skinny and fair Bollywood actress lookalikes? Why should the mangalsutra remain the sole preserve of the female spouse between a married couple? Sabyasachi also extended the mangalsutra’s promise of fidelity and commitment towards the LGBT community’s aspiration for legalising their marriages in India.

Political trolls

While trolls ranted about their hurt religious sentiments, the there are those who praise the ad not only for its creativity but also its religious inclusiveness. Ad filmmaker Gaurav Panjwani said, “This ad showed diversity and inclusivity and it is worth the fight. The makers could have stood up and faced the trolls but we are living in a religiously polarized world and this is not the first instance.”

Famous ad film director Prahlad Kakkar makes a case for taking a step back and having a calm look at the issue. He asks who is outraging and whom the outrage serves. He says, “I don’t think people are getting offended, I think it’s the fringe lunatics that are ultra-fundamentalist. It is a body very active on Twitter and most people are not bothered to reply. Right now, the only voices that you hear are people of political leading, and they think they are going to get mileage by polarising the population through Twitter.”

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Not the first time

Clothing and furnishing brand Fabindia removed a tweet promoting its Diwali collection after social media users, including Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, objected to the use of an Urdu phrase to describe the festival. In its tweet, Fabindia had called Diwali Jashn-e-riwaaz (celebration of customs). Several social media users called for a boycott of the company, claiming that the Urdu phrase had been used to hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community.

“Deepavali is not Jash[n]-e-Riwaaz,” BJP MP Tejasvi Surya tweeted. “This deliberate attempt of abrahamisation of Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu attires, must be called out. And brands like Fabindia must face economic costs for such deliberate misadventures (sic).”

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After Fabindia removed its tweet, social media users criticised intimidation tactics used by Hindutva groups against brands. People also pointed out that the Urdu language has its roots in India itself.

Ad filmmaker Milind Dhaimade said, “I think the group (Fabindia) is trying to create some good values about caring and respecting each others’ thoughts and beliefs and that’s what they are trying to associate with their brands, so what’s wrong in that? It’s just that a few people are using this to create a ruckus and make noise. Just because someone is from another religion they are trying to make a fuss about it.”

In the past, Tanishq of Tata products had to take down the ad for their jewellery collection, Ekatvam. The ad showed a Muslim family organising a baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law who is pregnant. The ad was described as a confluence of two different religions, traditions, and cultures coming together. Yet, the ad was criticised for promoting 'love jihad' which the right wing believes is used by the Muslim community to induct Hindu women into their religion through marriage or love leading to conversion. Following the trolls, the parent company Tata and Titan also faced backlash and boycott trends on Twitter.

Reacting to the issue, Congress MP Shahi Tharoor had tweeted, “So Hindutva bigots have called for a boycott of @TanishqJewelry for highlighting Hindu-Muslim unity through this beautiful ad. If Hindu-Muslim ‘ekatvam’ irks them so much, why don’t they boycott the longest surviving symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the world — India?”

Likewise, author Shobhaa De had said, “Good for you @TanishqJewelry. If only we had more ads like this sensitive and brilliant one promoting love between different communities, India would be a far better place for all. Shame on trolls #downwithbigotry.”

Author Chetan Bhagat also tweeted, “As a TATA group company, expected #Tanishq to be fairer and braver. If you have done nothing wrong, if you have shown something beautiful about our country, don’t get bullied. Be Indian. Be strong.”Another ad by Ola was criticised for being sexist, reinforcing the age-old trope of women annoying men with their penchant for shopping.

Zomato, known for its quirky branding, also once became the cause of public outrage. For one of their OOH ads displayed across hoardings and banners in Delhi-NCR, the food delivery app had positioned the letters ‘MC. BC.’ in bold, with tinier lettering beneath that read ‘mac n’ cheese’ and ‘butter chicken.’ The audience and several social media users did not take to the ad kindly, since MC BC expands into Hindi expletives generally understood as crass.

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Published on: Sunday, November 07, 2021, 07:00 AM IST
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